Serpent Across the Mekong: Evening of the Soontra Beetroot-Passionfruit Juice

Opened with great fanfare two years ago, its scraggly palm trees still strapped to their training poles, Suvarnabhumi is already visibly falling apart, dark clouds of murk gathering on the only recently blemishless vast expanses of raw concrete. I navigate past the touts to the SHUTTLE BUS stop on the lower level, its Thai purity unblemished by any other words in heathen languages, and partake of a free tour of catering buildings, customs compounds and parking garages before being dropped off at the Transport Terminal, where lower-class riffraff such as myself can board ordinary public buses or avail themselves of taxis without paying surcharges.

35 bahts’ worth of Bus 551 whisks me to Bangkok, in the sense of an impatient chef attempting to whip up cream that he had forgotten to refrigerate, but the clots of traffic crowding around Rama IX’s fine establishments like the Colonze 4 Massage parlour (SPA SAUNA KARAOKE NO BRA) eventually dissolve and barely two hours later I’m at Paragon.

A Nikon camera show is in progress in one of the atria, with scruffy photojournalist types and even scruffier geek types fondling lenses the size and resolving power of telescopes while teenage models in princess dresses ignore them totally and chatter about makeup. I head up to my regular haunt, the True Cafe on the 4th floor, and position myself and a glass of ice tea under what looks like a giant perming machine, vague washes of color projected onto the wall behind me while an giant dot matrix display on another wall flips through True propaganda.


Serpent Across the Mekong: Flight of the Thai Airways TG404 Airbus A330 seat 40A

Haiku time:

Tee gee four oh four
Seat pitch twenty eight inches
No one hears your screams

TG404 from Singapore to Bangkok is scheduled smack dab in the post-meridiem, which means it’s pretty much worthless for business travel. This has two consequences: as fares are cheap and availability is good, I seem to end up on it whenever I’m connecting out of Bangkok to somewhere else; and because the flight’s passengers tend to be the very definition of “low yield”, TG doesn’t hesitate to field its crappiest aircraft on it. Today, at least, they’ve replaced their previously ubiquitous Airbus A300, held together with baling wire, duct tape and chewing gum imported into Singapore with special permission from the Dutiable, Controlled & Prohibited Goods department of Singapore Customs, with a somewhat less antiquated A330. While I kind of miss the A300’s Commodore 64-vintage sickly beige interior and rotary audio channel selector, which always brought back fond memories of childhood flights when my knees were not necessarily jammed into the seat in front of me, in all other respects this plane is a mild improvement.

Despite Thailand’s generally stunning genetics and the same trowelful of makeup as that used to much success by Singapore Girls, Thai Airways flight attendants are generally not very attractive, doubtless because they received their positions through family connections in the vast, corrupt bowels of this state-owned airline. (A phenomenon easily observed elsewhere in the region, compare Garuda vs Lion or Malaysian vs Air Asia.) The plane is packed to the brim, and while waiting for Porn the trolley dolly(*) to fetch me my inevitable coconutty curry — as they say in Japan: Atsumono ni korite, namasu wo fuku, or “Learn from the stew, blow on the raw fish”, and ’tis a foolish man indeed who eats the “Western” meal selection on TG more than once — I hammer away at my Japanese kanji drills on my laptop like a crack-addled chimpanzee.

(*) Yes, really. It’s Thai for “blessing”.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Day of the Sign Banning Durians on Public Transport

My molded plastic seat hurtles sideways at 50 miles an hour. What passes for countryside in Singapore — carefully tended simulacra of jungles, housing blocks painted vaguely sinister shades of pastel with posters proclaiming “RACIAL HARMONY FOR TOTAL DEFENSE” (this being Singaporean code for “BE HAPPY OR I’LL KILL YOU“) — pass behind the head of the youngish Chinese office lady tapping away SMSes opposite me on her Hello Kitty-encrusted mobile, perfectly round glasses (but, not, thankfully, the moustache) robbed from General Tojo’s grave, complexion of a peach that ought to have been thrown out a few days ago and bouffant Kimjongilesque haircut enhanced by a constellation of expensive prohibitions, from flammable materials to stinky fruit, plastered on the wall beside her. A hypnotic spray of dots near the ceiling (1 center hole, 4 around it at the compass points, multiply by three to 12, shift and repeat 12, shift and repeat 12, shift and repeat 12, end) audibly advises us in English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil to press the Emergency Communication Button if we see anything suspicious.

Imagine Changi Airport as a cluster of fire engine red water-filled balloons, quivering in the tropical heat, pressurized dihydrogen monoxide squirming for release from its plastic confines. Shortly after station CG1 “Expo”, the Kawasaki Heavy Industries/Nippon Sharyo C751B segmented steel bullet punches its way underground with a WHUMPP, first heading due north, then curving 90 degrees to pass under runway 02L/20R and then — we enter Matrix bullet-time here — squarely impacting into Terminal 3, which implodes in slow motion with a PLOOSH, showering rain on all sides, as the train punches a hole on its way in and, within seconds, punches out. The train is now braking for CG2 “Changi Airport” (an eerily distorted “All passengers please disembark” announcement plays in the background), but it still retains enough motive power to poke about one carriage length (23 meters) into Terminal 2, which punctures with a less convincing PHLUMPP like punching a fat kid in the abdomen and, Newton’s laws being in effect, disgorges its load of water towards the offending object.

A last pitter-patter of drops and we return to real time. Only Terminal 1 and the pathetic shrunken little brown lump of the Budget Terminal, hanging from the deflated remains of T2 like a colostomy bag, remain intact, if wet. I have chosen my seat in carriage 5 of 6, which positions me next to the up escalator into T3, where I trek past the orchideous Crowne Plaza and board the Changi Airport Automated People Mover System. A Mitsubishi Crystal Mover on the PMS(*) North route B-C Landside beeps its way to Station B, and I board and take the front seat facing the Emergency Escape Hatch, staring ahead through the plexiglass at three parallel tracks diverging to lurk into and sneak around Terminal 1. (*) Yes, it really is called the “PMS” in bureaucratese.

In the interest of narrative continuity, Terminal 1 fails to implode on arrival at Station C. I obtain a near-rectangular piece of cardboard at check-in desk, insert a rounded piece of plastic and an opposable digit into the appropriate orifices of the Enhanced Immigration Automated Clearance System, take yet another escalator to the Commercially Important Passengers level (always a depressing reminder of why airlines value me) and enter.

Changi’s Thai Airways lounge has undergone a welcome refurbishment since my last visit here. It’s been afternoon for a while now, but they’re still serving breakfast, including specimens labeled “Smoked salmon butter lettuce sandwich” and “Chicken mayonnaise butter lettuce croissant”, and I sample both before realizing that “butter lettuce” is not a meltingly smooth cultivar of Lactuca sativa, but two separate ingredients.

Outside, T1 is being refurbished for the third time since 2003, wiry little Bangladeshis in dusty blue overalls nipping their heads out from partitions covered in meaningless slogans selling an Exciting, Vibrant and Enjoyable Changi Experience(tm). This time, they’re ripping out a perfectly functional ceiling and rebuilding it again a little higher up.

At gate. Boarding starts.

Serpent Across the Mekong: SIN-BKK-VTE-LXG-CEI-BKK-SIN on TG/QV/FD

also known as
The State Railway of Thailand is Decadent and Depraved

When there is a floating stone and a giant serpent across the Mekhong, Lao will be at permanent prosperity. 

–anonymous Lao sage

The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge opened on April 8, 1994.
The inauguration of the first passenger train service across the bridge from Nong Khai, Thailand to Tha Naleng, Laos was on March 5, 2009.
This is the story of what happened on the 6th.
(Plus another week’s worth of dazed wandering around rural Laos and the Golden Triangle after that.)


Readers are asked to excuse the florid verbosity (or maybe that should be “pleonasmic prolixity”) of the prose — you try writing a trip report while reading Infinite Jest. If it gets unbearable, skip ahead and it’ll get better. Or, quite possibly, worse.